Sunday, January 21, 2018
Perspective

Fact-checking fake news reveals how hard it is to kill pervasive 'nasty weed' online

No, the United Nations did not order former President Barack Obama to pay African-Americans reparations.

A distraught GOP Electoral College voter did not choose suicide over Donald Trump.

And, in case you weren't sure, Sarah Palin did not call for a boycott of the Mall of America because it had a black Santa.

For the past six weeks, we at PolitiFact have been digging deep into Facebook's news feeds to identify and disprove "fake news." Working with Facebook, we've been fact-checking news stories that have been flagged by readers as potentially fake or deliberately misleading. If we agree that a story is false, readers who attempt to share the post on Facebook first receive a warning.

Here's what we've learned so far. Fake news is like a nasty weed, it grows quickly and is hard to kill.

We've fact-checked a total of 31 claims that were flagged as "fake news." Eight rated False on our Truth-O-Meter, the other 23 rated Pants on Fire!

• In the short time we've been devoted to fact-checking "fake news," the phrase has been overused and misappropriated to the point that it's become pretty much meaningless.

Political operatives and various media outlets have used the phrase to vilify any source, fact or opinion they find contentious.

But "fake news" isn't an unverified report or an article written by an outlet with which you don't agree. (Donald Trump is just plain wrong when he admonished CNN for publishing a story about an unconfirmed intelligence report, saying "You are fake news" in a press conference.) It's a concerted effort by a website or other form of media to fabricate information in order to influence political opinion or win financial gain.

Perhaps the most insidious component of these kinds of hoaxes is that quite often, they simply sound plausible, especially to people who want to believe them.

That's because such stories can frequently be based on a kernel of true information, but portray it out of context or surrounded by made-up details. Usually fueled by partisan rancor, the stories spread across the Internet, making it difficult to attribute to single URLs and stamp them out.

Take one post about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court's most liberal members.

In December, stories spread across the Internet that the 83-year-old announced she was retiring. Dozens of obscure websites all cited an interview in which Ginsburg excoriated Trump and said she couldn't imagine serving as a justice during his administration.

All the fake posts read essentially the same, allegedly quoting Ginsburg about what would happen if Trump started choosing replacement Supreme Court justices.

"I don't want to think about that possibility, but if it should be, then everything is up for grabs," the posts quote Ginsburg telling the Associated Press.

Ginsburg did say that in an AP interview on July 7, 2016, but the context and all the other details were completely made up.

Ginsburg actually was saying then that she was not able to imagine Trump becoming president. We ended up rating the posts Pants On Fire!

While she later called her comments "ill-advised" and "incautious," the myriad posts claiming she was retiring could all be traced back to a fake story posted July 8 on a website called TheRightists.com.

The site says on its "about us" description page that "This is HYBRID site of news and satire. part of our stories already happens, part, not yet. NOT all of our stories are true!"

• The trouble with fighting back against fake news is it's hard to know who you're fighting against.

It's difficult to pinpoint just who is writing the content, because PolitiFact rarely receives a response when we are seeking comment from the originators.

It's apparent the creators can be far-flung, such as the teenagers in Macedonia who created dozens of pro-Trump websites to make thousands of dollars in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Several websites under an umbrella wesbite PolitiCops.com take small bits of true events and then expand on them with contrived elements. PolitiCops sites Newslo.com and Politicono.com claim they're satirical, but making up absurd details does not meet the definition of satire.

Writers for those sites did not answer our emails. The websites are registered to a man named Eli Sompo at addresses in Israel or, in the case of Newslo.com, Greece.

Sompo told us via email that he does create websites for clients but not their content. He wouldn't share any client information but did write that someone had tried to buy Newslo.com "because he thought 'it is too liberal.' " Sompo then said he ended up building that would-be buyer his own website.

TheRightists.com also is registered to Sompo. The same site previously drew our attention for circulating a story that capitalized on Lady Gaga's well-publicized dislike of Trump. The site inflated an interview the pop star gave CBS into Gaga claiming she would cover her face until Trump was out of office. The rating? Pants On Fire!

• Fake news is cheap to make, but the dividends can be great.

We also found an entire series of posts we rated Pants On Fire that involved celebrities praising a small, out-of-the-way town for being full of helpful people.

One story brought to our attention was about actor Bill Murray extolling the virtues of a town's citizens, who supposedly helped him after his car broke down and then took him to lunch.

Literally dozens of versions of this story existed across a host of websites with names that evoked true news sources, like "News Daily 12" and "16 WMPO." The name of the town, a restaurant or even the celebrity involved would change. We saw similar versions with Harrison Ford, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, Miley Cyrus and others.

These sites appear to be microtargeting residents of these small towns — like Marion, Ohio, or Mandan, N.D. — for the sole purpose of gaining advertising clicks. They also contained stories of celebrities promising to move to small towns, or big-budget blockbusters filming in nearby locations.

Again, no one answered our requests for comment.

But not every website we contact refuses to respond.

BipartisanReport.com, a site that posts mostly left-leaning stories written by freelancers, took down a story that said Florida called for a recount over voter fraud after we rated it False and alerted them the story was incorrect. They also removed a Facebook post touting the story.

An email from publisher Jason Brotman's email address said he had "removed it from our page as we try to make every story as accurate as possible."

Contact Joshua Gillin at [email protected] Follow @jpgillin.

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